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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 21st May 2005

The Philadelphia Story / Billy Elliot / Death of a Salesman

I walked into The Philadelphia Story with a real spring in my step. Admittedly, I'd never seen this play before, but how bad could it be given that the film--surely one of the two or three greatest romantic comedies ever to come out of Hollywood--was so closely based on Phillip Barry's 1939 hit? With Kevin Spacey in the Cary Grant role, Jennifer Ehle playing Tracy Lord and Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks at the helm, it couldn't fail, could it?

Alas, what I'd expected to be a long, tall glass of vintage champagne turned out to be vin ordinaire.

The play is much more of an ensemble piece than the film and requires a degree of integration among the cast that the performers in this production don't come close to achieving. This may partly be because there are both British and American actors on stage and, stylistically, they are poles apart. Jennifer Ehle, for instance, is rather mannered and stilted, as though she's appearing in a touring production of The Importance of Being Earnest, while the Broadway actor DW Moffett, who plays Mike Connor, is much more loose limbed and naturalistic. During their scenes together it's actually quite hard to follow what they're saying. If you add the fact that all the British actors are trying to do American accents--with very mixed results--The Philadelphia Story plays less like a chamber piece than something by Stockhausen.

Spacey seems completely wrong for the role of CK Dexter Haven which is a much more threadbare part here than it is in the film. He deliberately hams it up, throwing as many conspiratorial, sidelong glances to the audience as he can, and the upshot is that he seems rather camp, not at all the debonair playboy who holds the key to Tracy Lord's heart. His slightly prissy disdain for George Kitteridge, Tracy Lord's boorish fiancé, feels less like aristocratic froideur and more like the attitude of one of the makeover queens on Queer Eye For the Straight Guy.

Billy Elliot: the Musical is a cracker, easily the best new musical I've seen since I started reviewing plays four years ago. It's bold, original, funny and sentimental without being false. The emotions--like the gags--emerge entirely organically from the characters and never seem stuck on, as they so often do in musicals. The lack of mawkishness is doubly surprising given the average age of the performers. Billy Elliot has some fine actors in the cast--Tim Healy and Haydn Gwynne, for starters--but the show belongs to the children, particularly Liam Mower as Billy. (He alternates with two other child actors.) One of the many unusual--and daring--things about Billy Elliot is that it's a musical for adults that's predominantly performed by children.

Okay, now for the caveat. The second half opens with a gratuitous, anti-Thatcherite anthem that is symptomatic of the main shortcoming of Billy Elliot which is that writer Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry try far too hard to make common cause with the striking miners. In the film, the principal reason for having Billy's emergence as a ballet dancer play out against the backdrop of the 1984 miners strike was to give it as much dramatic punch as possible. A Durham pit village was, in effect, the most inhospitable environment for a gay, 12-year-old to come out in. It had the added bonus of allowing the filmmakers to show the "education" of the white, working class males as they gradually grew to accept a homosexual in their midst. Easily the most moving aspect of the film was the transformation of Billy's father, expertly captured by Gary Lewis.

But, from a political point of view, the film was never really pro-miner. On the contrary, it seemed to be echoing one of the main criticisms of the striking miners made by their opponents, namely, that the communities that had grown up around the pits were boorish, narrow-minded and fanatically hostile to any kind of change. Consequently, to try and recast the story as a eulogy to a disappearing working class Shangri La, which is very much how the musical comes across, seems completely wrong-headed. It's almost as if Daldry and Hall are so riddled with guilt by treating the miners strike as a convenient dramatic device the first time round that they're now trying to make amends.

Death of a Salesman is absolutely glorious. I saw this same production on Broadway in 1999 and I've been waiting for it to transfer for six years. It's been completely recast, with the exception of Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman, but the British actors--particularly Clare Higgins and Douglas Henshall--more than match their American counterparts (and their accents are pretty good, too). Death of a Salesman exemplifies all Arthur Miller's shortcomings as a playwright--it's didactic, over-schematic, heavy-handed and almost entirely humourless--yet it's so well put together that resistance is futile. You bow to Miller's moral authority as you do to the God of the Old Testament. No doubt Elia Kazan's 1949 production was the best, but this one, which originated in Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 1998 and has been festooned with Tony Awards, is surely a close second. I know it's meaningless to say that this play will outlast any other of the 20th Century since, after all, the test of time wouldn't be much of a test if you could successfully predict which things would pass it without any proper length of time having elapsed, but...well, I believe it will outlast any other of the 20th Century. Miss this production at your peril.

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